A sizable proportion of the American public in general — which, of course, includes a correspondingly sizable proportion of the community college students who enroll in my world religions classes each semester — evidently believes that creationism and evolution are on roughly equal footing, as more or less evenly matched opponents in the scientific (not just religious) marketplace of ideas.
Many seem to have the impression that the jury is still out with regard to whether modern evolutionary theory, or the ancient biblical account of divine creation, represents the most accurate and reliable account of human origins. They have somehow gotten the idea that equally good, if perhaps conflicting, scientific evidence exists which can be adduced to strongly support either side.
A fair number feel that each “theory” is equally likely, that the matter may never be satisfactorily resolved scientifically, and that it is therefore just as much of a “leap of faith” to accept evolution as it is to believe in creationism.
Some creationists even regard evolution itself as a kind of quasi-religion (disparagingly referred to as “evolutionism” or “Darwinism”), and view the whole creation vs. evolution debate as some sort of ideological battle, or even as a kind of religious war. Others maintain that creationism, in addition to being religious doctrine, can also be established or verified scientifically, and so speak in terms of “creation science” (in opposition to what they somewhat awkwardly label as “evolution science”).
Not only is religious illiteracy surprisingly widespread throughout the U.S. populace, but so too is scientific illiteracy — and particularly so when it comes to an adequate and accurate general understanding of evolutionary theory. And with all of the anti-evolution propaganda paraded before the public by creationist organizations, it’s no wonder that many average Americans either think that evolution and creationism are equally strong theories competing on a level scientific playing field, or else really just don’t know what to think about the whole matter at all.
One major source of common confusion here revolves around the use of the term “theory” in this context. In everyday conversation, the term is often used as a synonym for a hypothesis, a hunch, a suspicion, or even a wild guess. In science, however, it’s a technical term with a precise meaning: theories are comprehensive and well-substantiated explanations of observed phenomena, of large bodies of related facts.
It’s important to understand that, in science, theories never become facts. Rather, theories explain facts. Theories are bigger than facts, since theories are actually overarching (and well-tested) explanatory frameworks for entire vast bodies of interrelated facts.
Many creationists miss this critical distinction, and carry on misusing the term “theory” as if it were just a hypothesis. Thus creationists sometimes erroneously argue that evolution is, after all, “only a theory” (by which they mean, “only a hypothesis,” and as opposed to being, say, a fact — both of which are flat wrong). By using the term in this scientifically incorrect way, creationists thereby seek to imply that other “theories” (such as creationism) can and do carry equal weight or merit.
However, for scientists, evolution is both a theory and a fact. There is, first of all, the scientifically established fact that evolution really does occur; and then there is also the solid and robust “theory behind” how and why the observed fact of evolution occurs.
Gravity, for example, is likewise both theory and fact. No one disputes the fact that gravity exists. But what is gravity? How and why does gravity work? That is precisely what the “theory of gravity” is all about. So, the theory of gravity isn’t a hypothesis or guess that there might be some such thing as gravity; gravity is an observed and well-established fact. Gravitational theory goes on to provide a comprehensive explanation of what’s going on behind the scenes to produce gravity, and why gravity happens to operate in the particular ways that it does.
Similarly, atomic theory isn’t “only a theory” that things like atoms might exist. The existence of atoms is a fact; atomic theory simply starts with those facts, and then constructs a comprehensive and well-tested scientific explanation for just how and why atoms happen to behave the precise way they do.
What is true for atomic theory and gravitational theory is also true of relativity theory, quantum theory, cell theory, the germ theory of disease, and yes, even evolutionary theory. None of these are “just theories,” in the sense of being mere hypotheses, hunches, or alternative possibilities. All of them are instead comprehensive, scientifically tested, well established, and highly detailed explanations of the operating principles (the how and why, “the theory behind,” the nuts and bolts) underlying the observed and indisputable facts that gravity exists, atoms exist, relativity is real, quantum phenomena occur, cells exist, germs make people sick, and evolution happens.
“Evolutionary theory” is, therefore, not just a hypothesis, hunch, or guess that evolution might actually occur. That evolution does in fact occur is an established scientific fact. The “theory of” evolution is the detailed scientific explanation of precisely how and why that observed and indisputably factual occurrence transpires.
So, for creationists to object that evolution is “only a theory” is fundamentally misguided; evolution, like gravity, is both theory and fact. However, this common misunderstanding and misuse of the term “theory” (as a synonym for a mere hypothesis, hunch, or guess) profoundly muddies the water for those layfolk who may be sincerely struggling to understand just what this whole creation/evolution controversy is really all about, or what it might actually amount to.
(To be continued, in Part Two)